... in an article in Science Fiction Studies, [Lem] explains his issues with genre fiction as a whole: "If anyone is dissatisfied with SF in its role as an examiner of the future and of civilization, there is no way to make an analogous move from literary oversimplifications to full-fledged art, because there is no court of appeal from this genre. There would be no harm in this, save that American SF, exploiting its exceptional status, lays claim to occupy the pinnacles of art and thought." This makes sense, given that the rise of Lem's fiction didn't arise through the shared influences of the American genre, or even the underpinning cultural influences that informed it. In many ways, Lem was an alien in and of himself to the regular language of science fiction, and his viewpoint is a good way to recognize the limitations of the fiction emerging from the United States at this point in time. It’s also a good reminder that science fiction existed outside of North America and the United Kingdom.
I neglected to mention Lem before in my discussion of how SF&F is enriched by bringing in outsiders, when now that I think about it his name should have been one of the first on that list. His was among the first SF I ever read, and I kept waiting for the other stuff I came across in the field to live up to or surpass his example. Rarely did it ever do so, and soon I realized I'd started with the exception, not the rule.
What I liked most about Lem was that he was a gifted (and quite funny) writer and a lucid and adventurous thinker, with neither of those things compromising the other. Some of his stories got a little long-winded, but in retrospect I think some of that might have been my impatience as a young'un for him to get a move on, and not because the story itself was flawed. He also had a classical sensibility about his work; he hearkened back not to E.E. "Doc" Smith or H.G. Wells (or even Asimov, for that matter), but to Rabelais, Chaucer, and Voltaire. He wasn't interested in SF as a wish-fulfillment exercise.
One of the exercises I try to enact when dealing with my admiration for (or envy of) a given author is to ask myself: How can I do justice to what this author has done, without simply copying what they do? When I was young and foolish I wrote any number of stories in the Lem mold or in the Philip K. Dick style, without understanding what a dead end that was. Figuring out what there is to be learned from any particular author you admire, aside from what is on the page, is one of the hardest lessons any author can learn.
From what I've gleaned, it all comes down to understanding what it was they saw in the universe and why. Lem saw the universe as something of a cosmic joke, but one in which humankind could also elect to be a prankster if it so choose, and through such folly might even find a kind of divinity. I had never encountered such a view before in SF, and it's hard to find it even outside of SF. All the more reason to cherish it when it surfaces; all the more reason to see how you might enrich your own work with such a point of view.